Project Car Diaries: Testing Cheap Seat Repair Tricks That Actually Work
Quick fixes often have dubious results, but a cheap fabric repair kit and a box of markers brought some life back into my clapped-out Civic Si’s seats.
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When I bought my 2006 Honda Civic Si in 2021, I found two used-car red flags on the seats alone. Little circular burn holes near the driver's crotch area indicated that the car had been smoked in, and heavily faded embroidery suggested the car spent most of its days in harsh sun. Fortunately, I was able to breathe a little life back into the factory seats with a few cheap tricks.
The goal here was to freshen up a couple of aged car seats without doing any real work or spending much money. I did, however, spend a lot of time pondering the situation and weighing various seat-restoration options. In so doing, I've gathered some useful insights on how to make certain gross seats better.
Tools and Supplies
- Does fabric dust count?
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Why I Did a Quick Fix Instead of a Real Repair
You usually can pick up a pair of used eighth-gen Civic Si seats on eBay or Craigslist for a few hundred bucks, but after a few weeks of looking at listings I realized that they pretty much all have the same ailments as mine—I guess cig burns, water stains, and faded "Si" embroidered emblems are pretty much standard equipment.
So if you've got a similarly aged car, it's safe to say you might be in the same boat there.
First I tried seat covers—some tacticool-looking ones from Walmart (Dickie's brand) were OK, but didn't really feel like an improvement over the damaged stock cloth. Then I got some leopard-print ones on eBay which were pretty funny, but the novelty kind of wore off. Really expensive custom-fit seat covers do exist, but I wanted to make an earnest pass at repairing what I had before taking the plunge on something like that.
You could ditch the stock seats altogether and drop in aftermarket seats (or just one if your stock passenger seat's not bad; I think the mismatch actually looks boss) but good ones are expensive and cheap ones are dangerous. Plus, if your car has seat airbags like my Civic, tossing the factory seats means sacrificing a significant safety feature which is suboptimal.
One could also replace a seat's foam and upholstery, but that's a pretty labor-intensive enterprise. You'd have to spend a lot of coin to outsource it or a lot of time to do a decent job yourself.
Odor Removal and Careful Cleaning
Before I added anything to my Civic's 17-year-old seats, I wanted to try and take something away: The gnarly stank left behind by previous owners and the last seller's chemical efforts to mask it. A nice extractor like this would be a great tool for such a job, but I don't have one and didn't feel like spending $175 so I used a canned upholstery cleaner called Turtle Wax Power Out which a buddy of mine recommended.
After three passes with the stuff, the car wasn't quite ready for a Sotheby's auction but it smelled a hell of a lot less offensive. I knew this cleaning would be a little aggressive, so I wanted to make sure I did it before experimenting with the strange "fabric repair kit" I stumbled on in my research.
What To Expect Using a Fabric Repair Kit
You can usually find leather and vinyl repair kits that are kind of like a spread-on paint/paste goo, but the fabric equivalent is much less common on the shelves of auto parts stores. This fabric repair kit is made by Permatex, which is a brand I see and use all the time (it sells all kinds of lubes and thread lockers and such), but I'd never seen it in a store—I had to order it online and even as I held the box I wasn't sure what to make of it.
How the hell could you patch fabric with something that looks like a little apothecary kit? I'll walk you through the dark magic here and provide some tips if you decide to try it.
Holes left by cig ash are the perfect use case for this stuff. First, you're meant to fill the burn holes in with cotton. A cotton ball might work, but I found that the fluffy end of a cotton swap was better because it has more rigidity to it.
Then, you have to mix assorted powders together to copy your seat color. Yes, it's about to feel like a Renaissance Faire all up in your garage with you whipping up a dang potion in these micro-sized plastic cups that come in the kit. I got lucky here because my Civic's seats are simply black—and that color was already provided. If you need to alchemize your own color, do yourself a favor and Google color mixing before you start. Don't count on your memory of the color wheel from art class in middle school.
Now that you've got the powder, you're going to take this little cloth patch-piece and some adhesive paste (both from the kit), cut the patch to cover bigger holes, spread the adhesive in and around it as best you can, then sprinkle your color powder down on the adhesive'd area through a sieve. Like you're shaking powdered sugar on a slab of fried dough you just paid $19 for at a carnival.
Then ... you wait. And then you brush away the excess. You're done!
At first, I was kind of blown away by how good it looked. The powder hadn't completely masked the burn holes but it did a damn fine job blending them and reducing their offensiveness. Over a few weeks of driving though, the powder got pushed down and the repair spots looked a little more like scabs. Still better than the burn holes, honestly! But definitely aged to look more obviously like a home repair job.
I think a better result could be achieved with both more patience on the drying time, and perhaps some kind of sealant laid over the powder when it's still a bit fluffy. I've heard hair spray recommended for such a purpose but nobody in my house had any. I may attempt a re-application later and will add my findings to the comment section if I do.
Re-Coloring Seat Embroidery
I know it's almost as basic as red brake calipers, but I love a little embroidery or emblem'ing in a car's seatback. The eighth-gen Civic Si has a simple italic "Si" in red stitching surrounded by a sea of black cloth right below the headrest. It looks great until it's been in direct sunlight for a few years and fades into the hue of the shorts I wore when I was a preppy asshole from Massachusetts circa 2005.
I got the idea to color them with a marker when somebody in a Civic owners' Facebook group shared that their "Si" seat emblems were faded too, so they were going to re-color them with a Sharpie. Now, that would (and apparently did) work sort of—you will be able to mark light-colored threads with darker permanent ink. But the ink won't necessarily bond to or flow on fabric as well as a real fabric pen or paint will.
We don't need to wade into the science of inks here, but my point is that it's worth spending a few bucks for a quality fabric pen in the color of your choice for this task because your work's likely to be easier to execute and look better in the end.
I found this exact set of primary-color fabric pens at a local Walmart (or maybe it was a Michael's craft store, they're generally available at both) figuring I'd find other fabrics to color later. I was right—I ended up using the black fabric pen to touch up the seat repair I described earlier and it worked a treat to cover an errant embedded piece of cotton.
As for the actual seat coloring, all you need to do is to give yourself great lighting and then just pretend you're working on a coloring book like you did when you were a sprout. Staying in the lines is easy in the case of a big, one-color embroidered emblem, the pen felt like it wanted to stay on the light fabric (though you probably wouldn't notice a stray mark on the black cloth).
I probably invested a total of $30 and an hour of work to make the cute little repairs I just walked you through, but many more hours were spent trawling through forums and YouTube tutorials for tips on how to patch cloth seats and the best readily available handheld upholstery cleaner. So here's hoping you found some of this insight and inspo useful.
Even after all that though, the seat in my Civic is ... not very comfortable. It just makes my butt numb after about 30 minutes of driving, which I'm not gonna be able to live with for all that much longer. I've tried a few little cushions, but so far none have really transcended my posterior comfort. Should I spring for a nicely made Sparco or Recaro unit? Or perhaps try and make a custom lower cushion using the Civic's stock base?
Meanwhile, many more projects within the project that is our eighth-gen Civic will be on The Drive for you to enjoy soon. The suspension (including caster and alignment tweaking) has been done, as well as professional engine tuning using Hondata, and a surprisingly miserable cat-back exhaust installation. It's all coming up in Project Car Diaries this year.